Bringing new life to women's basketball

In the media room inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, the walls are adorned with large print photographs of the men's and women's basketball teams.

This time last year, two of these pictures included Gail Goestenkors, one of her coaching during the Final Four and another with her team after winning the ACC Tournament. Sometime over the summer, Duke cleansed the room of any sign of Goestenkors, instead importing one portrait of new head coach Joanne P. McCallie and another of Duke's players celebrating with fans in Cameron.

After Goestenkors' departure last April, some followers of the women's basketball team might have suggested that a superficial face lift like the one in Cameron's media room would have been akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic for a sinking program. In the press and around campus, Director of Athletics Joe Alleva was skewered for his inability to retain Goestenkors. Duke then swung and missed on its top replacement choice and was forced to scramble to find a viable alternative.

Only time will tell for sure, but right now it seems like that negative prognosis couldn't be further from the truth. From all signs so far, the coach Alleva did hire appears to have reinvigorated the program and breathed life into a basketball hotbed that is still lukewarm on the women's team.

Since departing Michigan State to fill the post left vacant when Goestenkors bolted for Texas, McCallie has done several things that have brought welcome changes from the previous regime.

She's interacted more with the community. Her commitment to reaching out and speaking to fan groups of all types was highlighted by her appearance as emcee of Duke's GameDay extravaganza Saturday preceding the men's Blue-White scrimmage. Coach G often talked about wanting to improve attendance at women's game, but Coach P is backing up those words with action. The women's team has more than 4,000 season tickets sold for next season, a total that's already 1,100 higher than a year ago.

In addition to her embracing of the community, McCallie has made a point of embracing the best basketball resource Duke has to offer: Coach K. It's been a virtual lovefest so far between Krzyzewski and McCallie, with McCallie praising their relationship any time she gets the chance. Krzyzewski returned the favor by recognizing McCallie and her team at halftime of the men's Blue-White game and even showing up himself to the women's scrimmage Sunday.

Duke has never had the Blue-White game for women before, but nonetheless Krzyzewski's appearance at any women's game is highly unusual and indicative of the improved relations between the women's basketball program and the rest of the athletics department. It would be an understatement to say that Goestenkors was unpopular within the rest of Duke Athletics by the time of her departure. The other varsity coaches spoke volumes by failing to show for the rally to convince Goestenkors to stay, and some athletics department officials struggled to contain their glee when it was announced that she was leaving.

Goestenkors wasn't just icy with her peers; she wasn't exactly a joy for the media to work with either. McCallie has been significantly less glib than her predecessor, displaying a willingness to be honest and open about all facets of her life, including her family. When asked about the importance of improving the popularity of women's basketball in the Triangle area at a press conference last week, her blunt answer was refreshing: that she couldn't care less about North Carolina or N.C. State, only about Duke.

It remains to be seen what actually happens on the court, but a coaching change could prove fruitful there, too. There's no doubt that Goestenkors produced a litany of successes at the helm of the Blue Devils, growing the program into the women's basketball juggernaut it is today. But her struggles in key situations were also well- chronicled. Over the past two years, she looked like a deer in the headlights as her team squandered the 2006 national championship and allowed her flirtation with another job cloud and ultimately doom last year's title run.

The jury is still out on McCallie. But according to reports, she's been working the team into better condition than ever, which could pay dividends come postseason.

More important than wins right now, however, is the positive vibe McCallie has created with her arrival in Durham. The coaching shakeup that was once talked about as a potential deathblow to women's basketball at Duke may prove as the final missing piece on the quest for the Blue Devils' first national championship.


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